Dylan and Bloom; or, Why Yeats Was Wrong

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There is a quote from the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, from a poem called “The Choice,” which I have never really understood.  Here it is:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work

Why do we have to choose?  I was thinking about this quote, because recently Netflix has announced that they will be releasing a new documentary about that most protean and enigmatic of artists, the pseudonymously named and pretty much always astonishing Bob Dylan.  What was I thinking about?  I was remembering various times in my life when, listening to Dylan in my car, driving somewhere, I would compare various tracks from different Dylan albums, if only to instantiate in myself a kind of marveling cognitive dissonance.  In other words, I liked the shock of encountering an artist who didn’t sit still, who was rather scandalously and bravely growing: as an artist, of course, but also, in many ways (to my mind) as a person.  Because, when you really thought about it, (and here is where the Yeats quote comes in), how could one compose such variegated and beautiful songs, if they were not emerging from the conditions of a particular life – a life that made room for the songwriting to happen in the first place?

As I thought about Dylan, I reflected on other artists and thinkers who, it seemed to me, had never really settled – who, by some strange alchemical need, urgency, prompting, were constantly producing works that built in tacit or not-so-tacit ways on the previous work – but who also found ways to fearlessly branch out, to break out of the confines of their earlier suppositions, norms, conventions, assumptions, standards, and to therefore transcend (but also include) what came before in their own work.

The American literary critic Harold Bloom is a great example of this form of striving, and he also has a new book out (feel free to click on the image below to put a hold on a copy).  I have been a devoted follower of Bloom’s career since I read, in the early 2000s, his rather confidently titled, How to Read and Why.  I can’t say exactly what it was about that book that led me to a lifelong addiction to the Bloomian voice, except that I can say with certainty that his passion for literature was so encompassingly large, so supremely infectious, so utterly and undeniably alive with fetching thought and feeling, that I became irreparably hooked.  And to reflect on his career is, in many ways, to come across another phenomenon, a la Dylan, whereby a human being, absorbing and breathing out the vast tradition from which they came, (Dylan’s Chronicles is a great place to start to learn about his own influences; Bloom is endlessly alluding to his forebears, which include the 18th century literary critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, and the 19th century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson), create from that tradition something fearlessly “revisionary,” to use a Bloomian term, i.e. they re-vision, they re-see, what came before them, and they then, from this creative interpretation, this vision, this feeling, produce something powerfully compelling.  If you merely glance at Bloom’s bibliography on Wikipedia, you can see a rather staggeringly deep arc in his work, from the Romantic poets, to the study of what poetic influence means, to Kabbalah and Sigmund Freud, to religious criticism (his meditations on Mormonism and Joseph Smith are utterly fascinating), to the Western Canon and Shakespeare (!), and onwards and outwards, towards and into meditations on Christianity, the God of the Hebrew Bible, various Shakespearean characters, the King James Bible, and into his now present work, which comes from a man in his late eighties who has refused to stagnate or stop developing spiritually in any way.

What can artists like Dylan and Bloom teach us, artists that can be easily found at most public libraries, including our very own Rocky River Public Library?  They show us, I think, that Yeats might have been too eager to assume that the life and the work are easily separable categories, mutually exclusive dimensions of existence where you have to sacrifice one for the other.  Bloom has taught at Yale University for more than sixty years, and Dylan has played live shows on what he calls a “Never Ending Tour” since 1988.  These two artists are, in a very large sense, role models for the rest of us.  The synergy of their lives and works form ballasts on which we can stand and look out and really think about what it means to lead a good and meaningful life.  Their superb examples, which cannot exactly be imitated, but can be learned from and incorporated into one’s own life, marshal forth endless opportunities for reflection on how and why we not only imbibe thought and art, but also attempt, in our own idiosyncratic ways, to become artists of life ourselves.

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Andrew’s Top Ten Books of 2017

1. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

This is my first time reading this gargantuan novel, and I have to say it is one of my favorite novels I”ve ever read.  The book feels so close to life, and each character is so robust, so vivid, and so memorable.  A must read for novel-readers of all stripes.  

2. Night of Fire – Colin Thubron

I loved almost every aspect of this novel.  It centers around a house fire that kills each of the house’s inhabitants, and each chapter begins with the fateful fire and one character’s experience of the fire (each chapter also ends with the character just before death or even during death somehow). But the majority of each chapter is taken up with narrating pivotal moments in the lives of each character, often having to do with love affairs or familial relationships or friendships.

3. The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch

This is a disturbing, funny and very dark novel about a retired English tax-collector who wishes to get away to write his “great novel,” but he gets progressively more embroiled in life, in the messiness and cacophony of life – and at a certain point he falls ridiculously and disturbingly in love with his best friend’s daughter.  

4. A Living Covenant: the Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism– David Hartman

Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

A wonderful book about productive ways to interpret various aspects of Judaism so as to make it into a living practice. Hartman is an astonishingly fertile and strong thinker, and I loved seeing him wrestle with his own Jewish influences, as well as work to make Judaism something viable for modern times.

5.  Why Buddhism is True: the Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment – Robert Wright

Although the title is kind of noxious, this was a fascinating book about the relationship between evolutionary psychology and mindfulness meditation.  

6.  The Dream Colony: A Life in Art – Walter Hopps

Hopps was a famous curator of 20th century art – he was the first to put on a show of Pop Art, and he curated some amazingly early and deservedly famous shows of Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp. But aside from all of his accolades, Hopps himself, in all of his zaniness, was such a fabulous and engaging storyteller, that the book was difficult to put down. He also had a seemingly photographic memory of the shows he put on, so we’re really given insight into what it was like to curate some huge and important shows of American art.

7.  Family Lexicon – Natalie Ginsburg

Family Lexicon (New York Review Books Classics) by [Ginzburg, Natalia]

This book takes place in Italy during the 1920’s and World War II.  It is a memoir of sorts, about Ginsburg’s family.  Her family, especially her father, is hilarious and memorable, and I found the book to be funny, wry, and sad.  Although the historical background proves to be momentous to the story, we are presented more with the minutia of Ginsburg’s family’s everyday life rather than history on a grand scale.      

8. Building Stories – Chris Ware

This is an absolutely amazing graphic novel, in design and content, about the inhabitants of an apartment building in Chicago.  It especially focuses in on one inhabitant, a woman who lives alone and works at a florist, and then later catches up with her and her family life.  The work is not irreverent in the way Ware’s early work is – it is quiet and serious and lovely.  I loved and was moved by every frame.

9.  Making Sense of Madness: Contesting the Meaning of Schizophrenia – Jim Geekie and John Read\

There should be more books like this. The book is accessible, humane, and challenging, and primarily written for the lay person. As someone with a family member who had schizophrenia, I felt I was able to understand the illness better.  The authors are skilled at communicating complicated concepts in non-clinical terminology. There is also a great chapter on the subjective experience of madness, using excerpts from client interviews.

10. Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960’s

This was the best book I’ve read so far about Dylan.  It focuses on Dylan’s body of work in the 60’s, and challenged me to think anew about my favorite musician.